That there is anything riding on Liverpool’s clash with Spartak Moscow on Wednesday night is a source of great frustration for Reds supporters, as even had they clung on for a 3-2 win in Seville a fortnight ago, top spot in Group E would have been sealed and Jurgen Klopp could have justifiably given his main men a rest. The inexcusable collapse in Spain, though, means that Liverpool still have a mission to complete against their Russian opponents, but at least the Merseysiders have their destiny in their own hands. Victory will see Liverpool top the group, while a draw definitely gets them through to the last 16 at worst. Defeat would see Spartak go above them on head-to-head results and, assuming Sevilla beat already-eliminated Maribor, that would knock the Reds out. If Klopp’s team play to their best, they are likely to get the three points they need to render the Sevilla kamikaze job inconsequential. Spartak are a peculiar outfit, though; they failed to win either of their games against Maribor but thumped Sevilla 5-1 in Moscow. Inconsistency rules with both teams at Anfield.
Manchester United also passed up what looked a nailed-on passage to the knockout rounds as group winners on Matchday 5, but a smash-and-grab defeat in Basel means that they still need one more point to guarantee progression. They are in a slightly better position than Liverpool, as they host CSKA Moscow knowing that a draw not only gets them through but also makes sure of top spot. Indeed, United could even afford to lose by two goals (or 3-0) and still qualify, so this seems to be a matter of simply dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. If Jose Mourinho’s side win, that would also see Basel qualify, with the Swiss side level on points with CSKA and with a slight edge on head-to-head. They are away to Benfica, who if they lose will end Group A without a single point.
Chelsea have qualified for the last 16 ahead of their final Group C game at home to Atletico Madrid, who are staring elimination squarely in the face. The Blues will cement top spot with a win, but anything less could see them overtaken by Roma, who welcome Qarabag to the Stadio Olimpico. Antonio Conte’s men looked to be on shaky ground after their hammering in Rome in early November, but the points garnered against Atletico and Qarabag have more than offset that setback. Atletico must win if they are to stay in the competition; were they to beat Chelsea, they would overtake Roma if the Italian side fluff their lines against Qarabag.
Tottenham made the entire continent sit up and take notice after dismantling Real Madrid at Wembley a few weeks ago, but their domestic form since then has nosedived alarmingly. Victory in Dortmund confirmed Spurs as winners of Group H, giving them the timely luxury of hosting APOEL Nicosia with zero pressure on their shoulders. That could play into the Cypriots’ hands, as they still retain hope of pipping Borussia Dortmund for the Europa League berth. However, with Spurs on a dreadful run, they will be eager to get back the winning habit, while their fringe players could stake a claim for more regular first team action. Real Madrid enter the last 16 as group runners-up and they complete their group stage programme with a home clash against Dortmund, who have had a woeful campaign but will at least claim third if they match or better APOEL’s result at Wembley.
Manchester City have looked vulnerable of late, but their remarkable winning run hasn’t just been confined to the Premier League. They could finish the group stage with a 100% record as they travel to Ukraine to face Shakhtar Donetsk with first place in Group F already in the bag. Pep Guardiola’s men have earned the right to field a much-changed starting XI, especially with the small matter of a Manchester derby on Sunday, but that could rankle with Napoli, who need to beat Feyenoord and hope Shakhtar lose if they are to edge the Ukrainians for second place. Their thumping win over Shakhtar in Naples has given them a shot of progression and they will be expected to get the better of a Feyenoord side who have lost all five group matches.
There are three English clubs already into the last 16 and two more likely to join them, but Celtic won’t be following suit as they have already been eliminated. They still have third place and a spot in the Europa League knockout rounds to play for, though, and only a three-goal defeat or worse at home to Anderlecht will see them fail in that mission. Still, confidence could be fragile after their 7-1 thumping by Paris Saint-Germain two weeks ago, while their Belgian opponents can afford to go all-out attack as they require a sizeable victory. The other match in Group B sees Bayern Munich host PSG, who despite winning all five games and scoring 24 goals can still be overtaken for top spot. That would require a four-goal victory for Bayern, though, and PSG have improved considerably since the infamous collapse against Barcelona last March, when they blew a four-goal first leg lead to crash out at the Nou Camp.
Last season’s runners-up Juventus still have work to do if they are to avoid a humiliating group stage exit. They lie second in Group D and are in Greece to take on Olympiakos, whose interest in this competition has already ended. Juve travel to Piraeus on the back of their most satisfying win of an inconsistent season, the 1-0 triumph at Serie A title rivals Napoli, and if they can prevent complacency from seeping in, they should get the win they need to ensure their place in the last 16. Anything less for the Italian champions opens the door for Sporting Lisbon to climb ahead of them, with the Portuguese side just a point behind Juve as they face Barcelona at the Nou Camp. The Catalans have already won the group, so expect to see the Hollywood names given the night off, a situation that Sporting would welcome warmly.
This time last year, Besiktas only needed a draw against already-eliminated Dynamo Kiev to take the unprecedented step into the last 16, but contrived to lose 6-0. There won’t be any such bottle job this season, though, as the Turkish champions already have Group G won. They are away to RB Leipzig, who are tied on seven points with FC Porto in a straight fight for second in the group. Should both of those teams get the same result on Wednesday, Porto would progress as they have the better head-to-head record. The Portuguese side are at home to AS Monaco, who have flopped spectacularly in this campaign after reaching the semi-finals in 2016/17. It seems an ideal fixture for Porto to get the win that would guarantee them a place in the knockout stages.
Liverpool also appear to have a favourable situation as they look to qualify for the Champions League last 16 for the first time in nine years, but nerves will be frayed at Anfield after what happened against Sevilla. A couple of early goals should make the atmosphere more comfortable, but the Reds must learn the lessons from two weeks ago and not give their opponents a sniff, especially with Spartak able to go all-out as they require victory. It could be a stroll for Liverpool or it could be a night of abject humiliation.